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U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program

Katrina Archival & Historical Record Team (KART)

Hurricane Katrina, 2005

Interviewee: AST3 Joshua Mitcheltree, USCG


Interviewer: PACS Peter J. Capelotti, USCG
Date of Interview:  5 October 2005
Place: Air Station Elizabeth City, NC

Q: I just want to start by asking you if you could give me your rank, name, and spell your last name please.

AST3 Mitcheltree: Okay. It’s Petty Officer Third Class, AST; Aviation Survival Technician Third Class Mitcheltree; M-I-T-C-H-E-L-T-R-E-E.

Q: Yes, and when this kicks on, if you don’t mind giving us your best command voice.

AST3 Mitcheltree: Okay.

Q: Just to make sure we get it. And your first name?

AST3 Mitcheltree: Joshua; J-O-S-H-U-A.

Q: Great. How long have you been in the service and how did you get here?

AST3 Mitcheltree: I’ve been in the Coast Guard for five years. I originally went down to an Aids to Navigation team in Hatteras, North Carolina. From there I went to school here in Elizabeth City for rescue swimmer. From there I went to Kodiak, Alaska, did a two-and-a-half year tour there as a rescue swimmer and just got orders back here this summer, so I have a four year tour here coming up. 

Q: So you wanted to get to warmer water, is that it?

AST3 Mitcheltree: This is closer to family and stuff.

Q: Okay, great.

AST3 Mitcheltree: It’s still a busy place.

Q: Is the rescue swimmer school here at E-City for the whole Coast Guard?

AST3 Mitcheltree: Yes Senior, it is.

Q: When were you told that you might be flying in support of Katrina operations?

AST3 Mitcheltree: I was told the night that the storm hit that we’d be leaving the next morning.

Q: So this was say Monday when the storm hits New Orleans?

AST3 Mitcheltree: Yes, and on Tuesday morning we got on a flight and headed to Mobile.

Q: A C-130 flight?

AST3 Mitcheltree: We flew a 60 from here on down.

Q: Okay.

AST3 Mitcheltree: An H-60 Jayhawk.

Q: And this is one of the airframes that eventually they were using to fly missions down there?

AST3 Mitcheltree: Yes Senior Chief. 

Q: How does that work; are you part of a regular crew or do they just say, “You’re going, you’re going, you’re going”, and you just wind up with whoever’s on the flight that day?

AST3 Mitcheltree: It’s usually just whoever is on the flight; whoever has duty that day. The day we went we took two flight mechs and two rescue swimmers along with the two pilots. So we all piled into the back, took as much . . . [Interview interrupted] . . . we piled in as much gear as we could in there and many extra things that the other helicopters that would be down there might need or anything that they were calling for; Night Suns, which are the big lamps on the side of the helicopter, and any other gear that we thought they might need down there, anything extra.

Q: So you got to Mobile Tuesday and what was the situation at the air station there; what kind of tasking/guidance did the air station give once you got there?

AST3 Mitcheltree: When we showed up we had a bag time, which is just a timeframe where we aren’t allowed to fly anymore because we’ve already flown our mission time for the day, which put us into a 12-hour bag, so we had to wait until the next morning before we were able to get back out and go flying. And the tasking we received was to just put our name in a rotation and help out wherever we could. They were sending as many flights out a day as they could. So we put our name into a pool and whenever our number came up we would go flying.

Q: And you would fly whatever mission happened to come up in that queue; what needed to be done?

AST3 Mitcheltree: Exactly. They would designate certain airframes. We would just be pulled. Pilots would come over and grab whoever they needed. If they needed one swimmer or two swimmers they would just grab whoever was available; whoever was next on the list to go, and you would just go with your crew and fly whatever mission was designated for you.

Q: Yes. So did you fly a mission that next day; the Wednesday?

AST3 Mitcheltree: We did, yes. Our mission was to fly to Baton Rouge, pick up a camera crew from "Good Morning America" so they could get footage from the rescues we’d be doing that day. We also picked up an MST; Marine Science Technician, so she could get photos of the river, and on our way back into the city we were immediately tasked with going to pick up some people off a rooftop and we just went right into pulling people off.

Q: And this TV crew was with you while you were doing this, is that right?

AST3 Mitcheltree: Yes.

[Interview interrupted by SAR Case]

Q: Continuing the interview with AST3 Joshua Mitcheltree. It’s Wednesday, October 5th, 2005. 
Okay, I think when we left we were talking about you had just gotten out of Mobile, is that right?

AST3 Mitcheltree: Correct Senior Chief.

Q: Can you take us through what you . . . what was the situation like when you got there? You were called down there, I remember, the day after; Tuesday.

AST3 Mitcheltree: Correct.

Q: Yes, so you got down there Tuesday night, Wednesday?

AST3 Mitcheltree: We got there about Tuesday at about six in the evening.

Q: Okay. What was the situation like at the base? I mean it must have been pretty chaotic.

AST3 Mitcheltree:
It was pretty busy. That’s about the time all the other flights were coming in for crew swaps so there were a lot of people shuffling through and we were thrown right into the chaotic mess. We had a bag time for 12 hours after flying all day which put us flying at six in the morning is when we were scheduled to take off the next day. And our first mission was to fly to Baton Rouge, pick up the camera crew and the MST and fly them back to New Orleans to get footage.

Q: And we just talked to him; Robinson was also on with you?

AST3 Mitcheltree: Correct.

Q: Yes. And so you go to Baton Rouge, you get this crew, and as you’re flying toward Baton Rouge and then New Orleans what kind of conversation is going on between the commander and the crew as to where you’re going, what you’re doing and how you’re going to do it?

AST3 Mitcheltree: On our way to Baton Rouge it was pretty quiet. We were listening to the radio. There was a lot of radio traffic going over New Orleans and we could hear all the helos, all the units, coordinating who they were going to pick up first and next, and so it kind of set the tone as we were flying across.

Q: And what was that tone and I mean what were they saying in terms of who they were picking up and where they were doing all this?

AST3 Mitcheltree: It was very busy. The main thing we were hearing was there was not enough room in the helicopters to pick up the entire section that they were hoisting too. We kept hearing, “Are there any more available 60s? Are there any more available helos”, and they were just running out of room inside the helicopters to transport. Later that afternoon was when they closed the Superdome. They weren’t dropping anymore patients off that way. So we could hear the new drop-off point was going to be the Cloverleaf, which was just there on the highway and they were going to transport them out from there. So flying to Baton Rouge we could hear all the conversation and it just kind of let us know exactly what we were getting into, and we still hadn’t seen anything. We were pretty high at the time. We stayed out of the airspace. So when we got to Baton Rouge and picked up the crew we informed them what we were going to be doing and asked them if they needed to see or do anything. And then on our way back into New Orleans we were listening to the radios again; listening to everything that was going on, and jumped right in and moved right into position. They were, at the time, asking for any helos that could take any additional tasking so we jumped on that and we were called to pick up two elderly folks that were on a roof that needed to get off. It was really hard to find them with the position we were given. There’s a big radius of area from the position that we were given. So when we were hovering in there we couldn’t find one roof with just two people on it. You know every rooftop had ten to fifteen people on it. So we found a good hoisting area and just commenced hoisting from that position.

Q: Just whoever was there and . . .

AST3 Mitcheltree: Yes, everybody’s waving.

Q: . . . go from roof to roof.

AST3 Mitcheltree: Yes.

Q: So the selection process was basically wherever you could get clear space to start lifting people.

AST3 Mitcheltree: That was what our priority was. I mean everybody’s waving and everybody was in trouble. So we just found what would be easiest for us to hoist to; a nice clear open space and hopefully they would move if they could to the open space, which some people were in the water walking around. 

When I went down into the water there were actually men and other people there helping. One kid, I think he told me he was 14 years old, and he just told me that he was walking around staging people. Wherever he saw a helicopter hoisting in his area he would grab people who couldn’t walk very well or couldn’t move through the water very well and he brought me a lady that was in a shopping cart. She couldn’t walk very well. She had a stoma in her throat and so he said that he knew that she needed to get out so he brought her to where he could hear the helicopter, and so we were able to get her out of there and a couple other people that couldn’t make it to the rooftop.

Q: Did you give him the number of the local Coast Guard recruiter? 

AST3 Mitcheltree: [Chuckle] I should have. He looked like he was working all day. I mean he was telling everybody, you know . . . it was great to have people. There was more than just him but he just sticks out in my mind because he was so young. 

Q: Yes.

AST3 Mitcheltree: But there was another gentleman that they told us about . . . .

Q: And this was just some kid who was just . . . .

AST3 Mitcheltree: Yes, just his neighborhood.

Q: Wherever the helos were operating he was getting people to where the helos were.

AST3 Mitcheltree: Yes.  So we had another gentleman, older. He let me know about a school detention center where they had a bunch of people staged. They had two floors so everybody was just living out of the classrooms there. He told me where it was. I told the pilots when we got back in and we weren’t able to get there until later in the day but when we came back to that spot we found that school and he was also bringing me elderly people and children and stuff.

Q: Was there any . . . well I guess it’s safe to say you never, well have you received or is there any part of the training package to get training in urban search and rescue?

AST3 Mitcheltree: No, not for us. We do train mainly in civilian rescue but we never . . . never anything to rooftops or in cities or anything. It’s usually open water is what we train for. I’ve been to Swift Water School and advanced school. so cliffs, open water, partial caves and rivers; minor river stuff is what we’re usually used to, you know never a flooded city.

Q: Yes. So I guess that visually this wasn’t like anything you’d seen before?

AST3 Mitcheltree: No, it sure wasn’t. There are a lot of obstacles to take into consideration when you go down to a city street in the water. Forget about curbs, fire hydrants, you know stop signs, street signs, anything; trash cans, I mean anything. 

Q: So any of those things could become potentially very dangerous, especially with a rotor-wash over your head.

AST3 Mitcheltree: Right. It was fences. I mean everything was in the water and you’re not really thinking about it as you’re walking along and you step off a curb and you drop a foot into the water and you’re like, “Oh boy.” It was really tough carrying a basket through the water and having to navigate through whatever was in the water; skateboards, bicycles. Everything was down in the water so it was pretty tough to maneuver people. So it was a lot better to be able to actually . . . it’s not normal procedure but we would just disconnect and drag the device over and have a couple of guys help bring them back. Everywhere we hoisted to there was always somebody willing and able to help out their family members.

Q: So actually disconnecting the basket?

AST3 Mitcheltree: Correct.

Q: And just using the floatation on the basket to sort of float it from here to there and wherever and then back to where the lift was being dropped? 

AST3 Mitcheltree: Correct.

Q: Yes, and I guess that was something that was improvised on the spot.

AST3 Mitcheltree: Yes Senior Chief. 

Q: Yes.  What aspects of your training were useful? I mean you hadn’t trained for this obviously but you say you’ve done river training and cliff training. Was there anything in particular that you drew upon as you were making these descents and you’re coming down on top of this stuff like; “Well I’ve sort of seen something like this before”, or “this situation”, or was it just totally unique?

AST3 Mitcheltree: Mostly the cliff training I’d say came into best use there. They were worried about maybe some currents but most of the water was pretty stagnant; pretty still. Any of the houses you went into, it was already flooded up pretty high so it wasn’t too bad as far as flow going. But the cliff training I’d say would have to be the most useful. I was able to . . . I mean the side of a house is a little different than a cliff and things like that but as far as angles and hand signals that we use and things we look for and best routes, that’s all in our cliff training and that’s what was probably most useful for that situation.

Q: Did you have roofs that were so steeply pitched that you had a problem with them or if you did, did you switch to another roof, or how did you deal with those situations?

AST3 Mitcheltree: We did have trouble with roofs that were pretty steep. A couple of times we would just put down somewhere else and kind of walk over to a different window or something that maybe we couldn’t reach from the helicopter. There was one incident where the roof was definitely too steep and the only window had an overhang on it so we couldn’t get into it. We were able to be put down into an alley on top of a car and go in through the second floor door on the porch and pull them out that way between two houses that was just wide enough to fit a car into.

Q: So you actually dropped down between the houses onto the car?

AST3 Mitcheltree: Correct. 

Q: Do you recall how many sorties you flew total while you were there? 

AST3 Mitcheltree: I flew four sorties while we were there?

Q: And these are all H-60s?

AST3 Mitcheltree: My last flight was on an H-65.

Q: Okay, so three on a 60 and one on a 65?

AST3 Mitcheltree: Correct.

Q: Can you describe the course of those missions; what was unique or challenging about them? I mean obviously it sounds like everything was but was there a point at which you were just sort of inventing doctrine with every time you were dropped down?

AST3 Mitcheltree: No, most of it was pretty standard. It definitely was . . . the guys that had been there a couple of days when we showed up would give us a little bit of a brief. We were wearing boots instead of our normal wetsuit booties just for added protection in the water. Most of us were wearing kneepads being on the hot roofs wearing the shorty wetsuit and then of course the axes that were pretty prevalent to everybody using. But one thing that we did try was taking two rescue swimmers, which seemed to help out. If there was a large crowd it was a lot nicer to have an extra person just for presence and also for staging. One person could be working people and the other person could be working the device back to the helicopter, or if it was direct deployments one swimmer would go down, bring somebody up and as he’s situating the person in the helicopter the other swimmer is already on his way down, and the cycle was a lot faster that way. You can hoist many more people in a shorter amount of time.

Q: What was the interaction between you and these folks; I mean what would you say to them; how would you introduce yourself; what reaction did you get?

AST3 Mitcheltree: Most of the time we’d go down and there was talk going around the shop. Usually we’re trained to be very commanding and let them know that we’re there to help them and they need to listen to everything we say but most of them were pretty used to seeing the helicopters so it wasn’t too big of a shock to them. So when you’d get down to the talk around the shop, while not flying, was to just be as friendly as possible. A couple of guys had some trouble with some little bit of confrontation but every time we went down we were extremely friendly, you know, asking who the elderly were. You know we went through our checklist of people who needed medication, people who were critical; things like that, and the people were very compliant. They were just as eager to help get people who were in trouble out as they were to get themselves out in most cases. A few people who were pretty anxious to get out would aggressively approach, which our standard procedure is to go out and get them out of there if they’re going to be causing that much commotion on the ground, go ahead and get them out of the way and they usually calm down once they’re inside the helicopter and they know they’re going to be going. So that’s what we usually did. We just let them know, “We’re from the Coast Guard. We’re here to take you out. We’re going to be taking you . . .” we’d let them know where we were taking them. A lot of people were concerned about that. They’d been hearing reports on radios about the Superdome closing and how bad the situations were getting in there and they didn’t want to go to the Superdome, which we were able to tell them, “We’re not taking you to the Superdome”, and that would relieve a lot of their reluctancy to go.

Q: Did you . . . you know we saw folks hacking their way through roofs. Were you involved in that?

AST3 Mitcheltree: I never hacked through a roof. The most I did was tear parts of a roof off that were flailing in the wind.

Q: Okay. Was there anything that was happening on the ground that led you to change the way you usually do things?

AST3 Mitcheltree: Other than having to disconnect devices to bring them into overhangs or on the sides of buildings to get people, that would probably be about the only thing I can remember I personally did that was different than what we’re normally used to.

Q: What was, while you were there, the thing that you remember the most or the incident that you remember the most?

AST3 Mitcheltree: Probably the first day we were picking up small kids - and I’m not sure how old the kid was, maybe two years old but so small we couldn’t get our devices around him, so you’re pretty much just holding on to him after you wrapped him around a couple times - and on the way up we caught some wind that caused us to start spinning real violently, and just thinking at that moment, thinking that I had a hold of this little kid and we’re spinning and the flight mech is bringing us up and it’s so hard to hold onto the child with the centrifugal force pulling out that I was able to kind of slip the kid behind the cable to help hold it and reach up and stop us from spinning, and just the kid, you know, crying. And once we stopped spinning he kind of looked at me and kind of smiled with his eyes rolling around in his head, and he was all right.

Q: He said, “Let’s do that again!” [Laughter]

AST3 Mitcheltree: [Chuckle] Yes, he was pretty excited. 

Q: And so we heard that you got a phone call and what was that all about?

AST3 Mitcheltree: The President called me. 

Q: The thing that you’ll never live down? 

AST3 Mitcheltree: Yes, it follows me wherever I go.

Q: Yes.

AST3 Mitcheltree: No, we were actually at dinner the night before and one of the commanders - I’m not quite sure of his name - came by and told us that an important official from the White House wanted to speak to some people that have been on-scene and had seen the ground, so there were three rescue swimmers sitting there and he took down our cell phone numbers – it was the only number we could be reached at - and told us he’d probably be calling sometime that evening. Well we waited up and the phone call never came, so in the morning I had to get up because we were going to be on "Good Morning America" so I was all ready to be up, but I got a phone call from his aide at about four o’clock in the morning; Blake Grossman, and he told me that the President was going to be calling sometime that morning. I wasn’t supposed to get up until five but I couldn’t go back to sleep. So I got up and I showered and shaved and got ready for the interview that morning and just as I was getting ready to head down to the hangar the phone rang and it said unknown on my cell phone and so I assumed that’s probably who it was, and it was the White House Directory and she asked me if I could hold for the President and I said, “Of course”. And he came on and just said, “Is this is Josh Mitcheltree”, and, “This is George Bush”, and I said, “Good morning Mr. President.” And we started talking. He kind of asked me where I was from and a little bit of small talk in the beginning and then he kind of asked me what my job was specifically. He said, “You’re the guy that goes down to the rooftops and stuff”, and asked me what the people were like, how they felt about us being there and the things that I’ve been seeing, and I let him know, “We’re picking up families; babies, kids, grandparents, mothers, dads, the whole family out of the house, every rooftop we went to”, and that there were so many. He asked me how much longer it was going to be; that I thought it would be. I told him I wasn’t sure. I’d only seen a small section of the city and where I was at there were so many people it would take us probably three days on our helicopter to get those people, so I told him that there was just a lot of people that were out waving and trying to get out of their homes, and so I said I wasn’t sure. And then he kind of told me, he said he really appreciated the work we were doing and asked me to pass along and tell everybody else that he thinks they’re doing a great job and to keep up the good work, which was a hard task to do. “Yes, I just got off the phone with the President and he said you guys are doing a good job, keep it up” [chuckle], so they’re like, “Yeah, right.”

Q: So you tell them that everyday now?

AST3 Mitcheltree: I do.

Q: “I just got off the phone.” Do you remember what day that was; was that Wednesday, Thursday of that week? 

AST3 Mitcheltree: We got there on a Tuesday. Wednesday we went flying so it would have been Thursday morning I talked to him.

Q: So that would have been September 1st.  Is there, based on your experiences, I mean other than just having like 400 more helicopters, would you have any suggestions if you were to go into a situation like this again where you had this kind of mass evacuation of an urban area?

AST3 Mitcheltree:
I thought things went pretty well. There’s a lot of air traffic so I’m not sure how many more aircraft they could have put in the air. It seemed like every time you went out the door there was . . . you could . . . I mean we’d spin and I could see an aircraft at every clock position, which I wasn’t flying so I’m not sure if anybody had any close calls or anything. But I think the way things were working; dropping people off at, we were dropping people off at the airport and we were told the next day they were going to bring in a larger aircraft to pick up mass amounts of people and fly them inland somewhere, which seemed to be a great idea to me. I felt that was probably the best thing they could have done was use a smaller aircraft to get in, drop them off at a large staging point, pick them up and fly them out. That seemed great. I know at the Cloverleaf they were busing them out, which was also a great maneuver.

Q: So would it have helped if say block by block there was like a common staging area that a lot of people could get to instead of this kind of, you know, go here, here, here, here? You’ve got this heavy lift capacity, you’re time-limited, and if everybody from one neighborhood could go to this rooftop, especially if you’re in a city where there’s a chance that you might be flooded, they might want to start building some widows-walks like they have in New England so that everybody can walk across their roofs to a common area so if they have to get picked up they can.

AST3 Mitcheltree: Right. I’m not sure about that. I don’t know if any other cities are in as much danger as New Orleans might be by flooding or susceptible to it, but yes, I think definitely in New Orleans that would probably be a great idea to have high points that a lot of people could get to. But there’s a lot . . . I mean I’ve never seen that many people before in my life so I don’t know.

Q: There’s really no good way to get those people out quickly with that number of folks.

AST3 Mitcheltree: Yes, I would think it would be tough. I mean if they didn’t evacuate or if they couldn’t evacuate it would just be really tough because that’s what I heard was a lot of people couldn’t evacuate. They had no means of leaving, which in most cases hurricanes usually die down. You know we see them huge in the ocean and by the time they make landfall they’ve already died down and they’re not too bad. But yes, if they could have like maybe gotten those buses in sooner but you don’t want to get buses stuck in there either.

Q: Is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t covered?

AST3 Mitcheltree: No, I think we’re good. I got to meet the President on Friday.

Q: Oh yeah, that same week?

AST3 Mitcheltree: Yes, he came down the next day after the phone call.

Q: So this just doubled your agony, huh?

AST3 Mitcheltree: Yes, well because he asked for me. So I was out flying the whole night and when I got back that morning they told me he was coming in so I kind of hung out and waited in the shop. They had let some people go out to meet him. They picked a couple of people that were sitting around and so I kind of hung out just to see if I could see him or something through the window, and when they came in I guess he asked for me after he shook everybody’s hand and said, “Where’s Mitcheltree? I didn’t see him in line. Where is he?”

Q: He didn’t say that after he shoved the admiral out of the way, did he [chuckle]?

AST3 Mitcheltree: [Chuckle] I’m not sure. “Is he available?” And so they came over and got me and I got to run out and shake his hand and meet him and talk to him.

Q: Get your picture?

AST3 Mitcheltree: I did get my picture.

Q: Is that on your desk?

AST3 Mitcheltree: No.

Q: You didn’t get your official White House photo?

AST3 Mitcheltree: No, I wanted that. I had a camera in my pocket and I reached out to his aide and I said, “Hey, can you take my picture” He goes, “Oh, we’ll use a good camera to take you picture”. So I haven’t got it yet but they said it would take a little while.

Q: I suppose after that the agents have called. You’ve got a publishing contract by now, a movie deal; all that stuff [chuckle].  Well this is great; what a great story.  Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. 


Last Modified 1/12/2016